In July 2022 the famous Gion Festival in Kyoto was held for the first time in three years due to the COVID pandemic. The roots of the month-long festival originate in 869 AD when people were suffering from a terrible pestilence. For more than 1100 years the Festival has survived many natural and man-made disasters. It is seen as a great symbol of sustainability and the enduring human spirit. July 24th, the day of the second 2022 Gion float parade, coincided with a Zoom event where I shared stories from my eclectic and extensive library of ‘Things Japanese’. My library includes a selection of physical and digital publications, photographs, mementos and experiences guided by the relationship between nature and people in Japan, through the lens of nature’s elements and two five element cosmologies. This was the fourth event in an ongoing series where Writers in Kyoto (WiK) members share their libraries (the first three events were held in physical libraries, not a virtual one). My Zoom presentation described the genesis, evolution and use of the library intertwined with my increasing engagement with Japan. It featured stories and lessons learnt through selected publications (including my own) and the people and experiences related to them. This post draws on the Zoom event, includes links to relevant sources (bolded), and incorporates additional material based on my reflections and questions asked by the audience. There are many stories to tell, so grab your favourite beverage and settle in.
The pentagram in Japan: a puzzling mix of magic, medicine and the five elements
The pentagram (J. gobosei) is a powerful symbol over 5000 years old, primarily associated with Europe and the Middle East. In contemporary Japan the pentagram is closely connected to Abe no Seimei, the Heian-era Onmyodo practitioner popularly known as the ‘Wizard or Master of YinYang‘. Depending on the source, Seimei is credited with having either independently created the pentagram around 1000 years ago or adapted/borrowed it from Daoist charts in currency at that time. Elsewhere I’ve read that the symbol was introduced to Onmyodo through Tantric Buddhism, with the original source going way back to the Pythagoreans. My principal interest in the pentagram is its representation of the five elements/phases (J. gogyo) of Wood, Earth, Water, Fire and Metal. As well as exploring the connection with Seimei, this brings Kampo (a form of traditional Japanese medicine) and fusui (the Japanese way of Feng Shui) into the mix. The challenge to research, describe and interpret the origin, history and symbolism of the pentagram in Japan has been great and is ongoing. The purpose of this exploratory post is to share progress with the intriguing and mysterious puzzle so far and discover if readers can contribute additional pieces.
Feel the energy: five years exploring the (five) elements in Japan
Five years ago today I hit the ‘Publish’ button on my first post about Elemental Japan. Titled ‘A story waiting to be told‘ the post introduced and set the context for my upcoming travels to and within Japan where the prime focus would be on the elements. With my travel companion Suki (a soft toy dog) by my side, and a mind map and copious notes at hand, an incredible and life-changing journey was about to begin. Reflecting on the last half decade – the places visited in Japan, the friendships made, the experiences experienced, the blog posts written – provides an opportunity to share the lessons learnt and look to the future. It is a milestone worth celebrating and contemplating. There is a lot to cover, so find your favourite reading spot, grab a drink if you so desire, and enjoy this story about Elemental Japan…so far.
Celebrating the elemental ceramics of Japan
Taiko drumming fills the air, intense flames shoot out of a multi-chambered climbing kiln, the words ‘Fire, Air, Earth and Water’ appear sequentially on the screen. This is the intense start to the video ‘Elemental‘ featuring the Japanese ceramic artist Ken Matsuzaki. The spirit and energy of the artist is a fifth element that brings the ceramics to life. Locally sourced elements are artfully combined to produce unique ceramic pieces in Japan, a tradition that spans thousands of years. The Way of Tea was a decisive juncture in the evolution of the ceramic arts, adding diversity, vitality and ritualised meaning. To celebrate these compelling creations I invited three friends with a passion for Japanese ceramics to share the pieces they felt embodied the elements. The selections and associated reflections by Robert Yellin, Allen S. Weiss and Tatsuo Tomeoka provide nourishing food for thought about the genesis, function, beauty, spirituality and environmental sustainability of hand-made ceramics in Japan and beyond.
Gorinto: a uniquely Japanese five element stupa
The gorinto is fundamental to my explorations of Elemental Japan. Composed of stacked geometric forms that represent earth, water, fire, wind and space this Buddhist monument embodies the interconnectedness of all creation in tangible form. It has deep spiritual symbolism and significance. Largely found as a grave marker in contemporary Japan, the gorinto has a long association with meditation, medicine, memorials, martial arts and use as a reliquary. In modern times the beautifully balanced and striking form of the gorinto has seen the imagery and elemental connections adopted more widely. From Koyasan – the Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage site that is the ‘home’ of the gorinto – to Kyushu, Kamakura, Zentsu-ji and beyond, my fascination with this form has taken me across the length and breadth of Japan, as well as tracking down related material wherever I can.
In search of gojunoto, the five element Japanese pagoda
The Japanese five-storied pagoda (gojunoto) is a remarkable piece of Buddhist architecture that represents the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind and space/void. It has played a significant role in Japanese culture for over 1400 years and continues to do so. Built to enshrine Buddhist relics and as a focus of devotion, the towering form of the gojunoto captures and captivates the imagination. Their layered wooden grooves ascending in stages towards the sky evoke a spiritual connection. The metal spire at the top completes the structure and symbolism. The sophisticated wooden architecture of the pagoda provides resistance to the elemental forces of earthquakes and strong winds, a design that has informed modern multi-story architecture. With it’s origin in India, and influences from Chinese architecture, the Japanese pagoda has developed into a distinctive form. My search for gojunoto and the way they are represented has opened up a new and exciting dimension of Elemental Japan.
A transformative two months in Elemental Japan
Cherry blossoms are synonymous with Japan. It was these ephemeral beauties that determined the starting date of March 23rd, 2018 for a two month trip to further explore the elements in the Land of the Rising Sun. The first month was spent with my sister Ruth. Together we saw Sakura in different phases of development, from gorgeous pink buds to trees mostly covered with leaves. The experience was magical, with the highlight the cherry blossom viewing party (hanami), next to Fushimi Castle in Kyoto. My solo travel spanned early Summer, a season of vibrant greens, Azaleas, Irises, the hint of hydrangeas and the flooding of rice paddies. Starting in Kamakura, the second month found me in Tokyo during Golden Week, travelling in southern and northern Honshu, and ending in Sendai to visit the 3/11 Community Memorial Centre. Here I introduce some of the elemental themes and transformations that occurred over this stimulating two months with a focus on the flower that captivates a nation.
Ninja go! The elements in action
Ninja are immediately recognisable in the west, their imagery and behaviour in most cases only loosely based on the original Japanese qualities. Movies, TV series, comics, video games and a whole world of merchandise demonstrates the continued interest in these mysterious action heroes. Not surprisingly my interest in the ninja is their connection to the elements. That gave me a reason to see the 2017 Lego movie ‘Ninjago‘, ostensibly a movie for children, where the elements are featured. My interest has also lead to reading translations of the original ninja manuals and sourcing other information from Japan. Comparing the different representations of the ninja (west and east, modern and traditional), the ninjutsu they practice, and their relation to the elements has been intriguing – and complicated. These are my impressions so far.
Zen and the five elements
Kyoto, the City of Zen – one of the many guises of this intriguing metropolis. Short sessions or overnight stays are offered at several temples, principally of the Rinzai school of Zen, to experience meditation, green tea and Zen gardens. This is ‘Classic Zen’, as often portrayed in the west and for the west. A short train ride from Kyoto, the Head Temple of Obaku Zen can be found. A more recent arrival in Japan, this school of Zen has retained many features of its Chinese heritage. The two Head Temples of Soto Zen, which has the most temples of any Buddhist school in Japan, are found further afield. The machinations of history determined that this school of Zen has a modest presence in Kyoto. In my exploration of Zen and the five elements each of these schools has a different story. As I’m discovering elsewhere in elemental Japan, their paths merge and diverge in a fascinating and complex way. Here is what I have learnt so far, a journey with many connections to Kyoto.
The power of the five elements
On October 29th, 2016 I made a pilgrimage of sorts from Kyoto to Sohonzan Zentsu-ji on Shikoku. Through serendipity I had discovered that this Temple was where Kukai (posthumously named Kobo Daishi), the founder of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism in Japan, was born and grew up. The five elements of earth, fire, water, wind and space are an essential part of the teachings and practices of Shingon Buddhism. As Zentsu-ji has been identified as one of the top three temples associated with Kobo Daishi (the others being the Koyasan complex and Toji Temple, both on Honshu, both of which I have visited) I decided that catching three trains each way was worth the effort. It was an effort very well rewarded.